2 One Another, Sydney Dance Company

Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney. October 5.

Sydney Dance Company artistic director Rafael Bonachela clearly adores 2 One Another. Made in 2012, it was revived in 2013, 2014 and 2015, is much travelled and this season celebrates its 100th performance by making its first reappearance in Sydney. Next stop is Shanghai.

Audiences love it too, and why not? It’s a glamorous production that shows the full company in ferocious form. Just when you think the SDC dancers couldn’t possibly look more magnificent, more dynamic, more super-human, they do.

Sydney Dance Company's 2 One Another. Photo by Peter Greig

Sydney Dance Company in 2 One Another (earlier cast). Photo: Pedro greig

There are only six dancers of SDC’s current complement of 16 who were in the original cast but Bonachela chooses his company members well. The youngest of them haven’t yet fully developed the combination of intensity, muscularity and sophistication that the more experienced dancers wear like a second skin but they add other colours. Their hunger for the work is palpable and rather touching.

It’s a beautiful thing to see three young men, Sam Young-Wright, Izzac Carroll and Nelson Earl, growing into themselves. Young-Wright and Carroll are tall and rangy and both still have a coltish air about them; Earl brings a sense of danger to the stage. Each has a distinct personality.

Tony Assness’s design, Nick Wales’s music and Benjamin Cisterne’s lighting work together brilliantly to create a highly charged sensory experience and Bonachela’s choreography is intricately detailed and patterned. Those 16 amazing dancers are pushed to the limit and beyond in a complex weave of group dynamics, duos and solos.

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Current cast of Rafael Bonachela’s 2 One Another. Photo: Pedro Greig

The title of the work is illustrated in the opening moments. Most of the dancers stand close to one another, flanked on one side by a solo figure and on the other by a seated duo. All are dressed similarly in form-fitting dark green with mesh inserts and, as lights flash and unsettling music thunders, they gesture in unison. The unanimity doesn’t hold and soon the piece is off and running.

Partnerships form, dissolve and reform differently, echoed by changing paintings in light on the huge LED screen at the back of the stage. For some sections the music moans and groans like a living creature while others moments are bathed in the aural glow of the Baroque and the Renaissance. The score also incorporates some spoken word in the form of poetry fragments by Samuel Webster.

It’s hard to decipher all of Webster’s contribution in the sound mix and greater access to it would have been useful.

The 2012 program prints some of Webster’s lines and they speak of great intimacy. Bonachela writes in his program note (both then and now) that Webster responded to things he saw from the dancers in the rehearsal room at an early stage of development and then later the dancers used his words to create movement. “The text that Samuel created is very beautiful and full of love and emotion and I sought to create movement that explored all those intensities of human interaction,” Bonachela writes.

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Janessa Dufty in 2 One Another. Photo: Pedro greig

For the most part 2 One Another doesn’t achieve that goal. There is so much to stimulate the eye and please the ear that the somewhat cool temperature takes a little bit of time to register, but after perhaps 40 minutes of wonderful dancing one looks in vain for deep human connection. Assness’s CV bulges with creative direction for big events and he knows how to deliver the wow factor. It’s just that 2 One Another could do with a bit less of that.

Individual company members stir the blood, as they always do, although Assness has done his best to impose a degree of anonymity on the dancers by styling them in a way that means you have to look twice and three times at some of them to confirm they are indeed who you think they are.

Still, it’s impossible not to register Janessa Dufty and Charmene Yap in particular (one of Bonachela’s most precious attributes as a choreographer is the equal standing he gives women and men). Dufty and Yap were both in the premiere of this work five and a half years ago and their power and authority are still a joy to see.

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Juliette Barton and Bernhard Knauer in 2 One Another. Photo: Pedro Greig

The same is true for Juliette Barton, who has been with SDC since 2009 and is ever more magisterial as the years go by. Some warmth emerges about two thirds of the way through the 65-minute piece when the dancers appear in looser, red garments and, in a memorable duet, Barton and Bernhard Knauer reach for something beyond exhilarating movement.

Ends October 14.

Under Siege

Yang Liping Contemporary Dance. Brisbane Festival, September 27. Melbourne Festival until October 8.

Yang Liping’s exquisite Under Siege is like the richest of sauces, distilled and reduced until only the essentials remain.

The setting is China about 2000 years ago as one dynasty, the Han, bloodily replaces another. Yang’s episodic, impressionistic work strips away the immensely complicated politics to arrive at a truth as old as time and new as today. Two men with great resources at their command vie for power. One wins; the other dies.

The situation could not be more stark nor the depiction of it more sumptuous. The senses are ravished by a heady mix of contemporary dance, martial arts, traditional Chinese music, Peking Opera and poetic set and costume designs by the masterly Tim Yip.

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Yang Liping Contemporary Dance’s Under Siege. Photo: Ding Yi Jie

Hanging over the stage is American-Chinese artist Beili Liu’s shimmering forest of scissors, inspired by her installation The Mending Project. Hundreds of blades in undulating rows glint in shades of grey and gold as lights play on them. The cutting imagery is echoed by a woman who sits at the side of the stage throughout the performance, fashioning huge Chinese characters from mounds of white paper and holding them up to announce characters or scenes. In Under Siege beauty and death are close companions.

Anonymous combatants clash forcefully and whirl through the air excitingly but are also capable of great delicacy in gliding runs and undulating spines. Their affiliation isn’t clear but it’s not important. A soldier is a soldier. On which side doesn’t matter.

The real action lies with a small group of individuals to whom Yang gives distinctively different movement qualities. Most unforgettable is the concubine Yu Ji, danced by Hu Shenyuan – a man – with extraordinary fluidity and sensuality. For Yu Ji’s first solo Hu is almost naked, quite clearly a male dancer in keeping with Peking Opera tradition but without any of the trappings that might make him appear to be impersonating a woman. Yu Ji is deeply attached to the aristocratic, charismatic Xiang Yu and her fate is bound to his completely. Hu’s plasticity and refinement are enthralling, otherworldly even, and yet lucidly convey this worman’s interior life.

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Yang Liping Contemporary Dance in Under Siege. Photo: Ding Yi Jie

Later, dressed in red, Yu Ji has heart-catchingly tender duets with her doomed lover, danced with much dignity and almost magical physical powers by He Shang, whose standing backflips are performed without apparent preparation. The stockier Gong Zhonghui plays his adversary, Liu Bang, with earthier traits that are sometimes close to buffoonery but with a dangerous edge. A general, Han Xin (danced by Xiao Fuchun), is described as unappreciated and his divided loyalties are shown literally when he is given a sinister, black-clad doppelganger (Ou Yangtian).

Guo Yi’s magisterial narrator speak in the swooping tones familiar from Peking Opera and even when it’s clear he has rather more to say than the surtitles offer, his presence is compelling. On the subject of surtitles, they give a welcome assist to non-Mandarin speakers and those not entirely familiar with Chinese history. (When Under Siege was performed in London last year this help wasn’t available. Much criticism ensued.)

It’s still a good idea to do a little bit of homework to get full value from Under Siege. Or you can sit back and let this extravagantly beautiful, intoxicating experience take you wherever it will.

A version of this review first appeared in The Australian on September 29.

Together Live 2017

Sydney City Youth Ballet with the SYO Philharmonic. The Concourse, Chatswood, Sydney. September 23.

The room is always full of hope and desire when student performers take to the stage, particularly if they are dancers or classical musicians.

Some will have started as young as four or five and certainly by eight or nine. In their early teens they are upping the number of classes they take each week. If they survive the rigours of intense practice and the personal sacrifices required by these all-consuming arts, their late teens see them negotiating the transition from L-plates to a professional career.

Getting in front of an audience is part of the process, hence all those competitions and eisteddfods, but there’s nothing like a proper concert to get the juices flowing for the performers and for those out front. Who doesn’t like getting in on the ground floor of someone’s brilliant career?

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Janae Kerr and Alexander Smith in Les Sylphides. Photo: Winkipop Media

Student dance concerts are almost always staged to the unyielding backdrop of recorded music for understandable economic reasons but the lack of living, breathing, energising music is felt. The inaugural collaboration between Sydney City Youth Ballet and the SYO Philharmonia – Sydney Youth Orchestras’ second-most senior orchestra – was therefore an occasion to cheer and with luck it won’t be a one-off.

The Together Live 2017 program was ambitious, featuring two substantial new works, two orchestral numbers and an appearance by guest artists from Queensland Ballet alongside three classical showcases.

Arranged at the back of the stage, the SYO Philharmonic opened with the third movement of Prokofiev’s Symphony No.1 in D Major “Classical”, with Wim Broeckx’s new work Classical Symphony, arranged to Prokofiev, following.

Broeckx made attractive use of a six-member corps of women, whose entrances, exits and graceful patterns formed an ever-changing backdrop to a series of solos and pas de deux for leading men and women. Alexander Smith, 17, formerly with Sydney’s Tanya Pearson Academy and currently studying in Stuttgart, was a little tested by the fast tempo set by conductor Brian Buggy but showed swift, clean beaten steps.

The other premiere was a two-part contemporary piece by Adam Blanch that took the not-unfamiliar theme of environmental degradation and a collapsing society. An atmosphere of unease was well sustained by the choice of music. Blanch used an electronic score by Seymour Milton for part one, Redemption, following with Peter Sculthorpe’s Earth Cry for the second part, The Sky is Falling, in which the SYO Philharmonic had a big success. After a beginning that was perhaps a little too literal in its depiction of isolation, a large group prowled, gathered, dissipated and reformed, each member ferociously committed to the work.

In between those two works there was the chance to see 18-year-old Cameron Holmes tackle the Le Corsaire pas de deux with apparently serene and absolutely justified confidence. Not once but twice he threw in a clean, high-flying 540, that highly acrobatic aerial move borrowed from martial arts that all the men have co-opted these days, or at least those who appear in splashy party pieces such as this. His partner, Audrey Freeman, had poise and maturity well beyond her years. She is only 14 but also emanated sophisticated mystery in Redemption, as did Aaron Matheson.

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Cameron Holmes in Le Corsaire. Photo: Winkipop Media

In the Les Sylphides pas de deux Janae Kerr, 16, captured the poetic perfume of Mikhail Fokine’s choreography, seen in floaty balances and a melting backbend over her partner Smith’s shoulder.

The glamour quotient was sky-high in the grand pas deux from The Nutcracker in Ben Stevenson’s version, danced by Queensland Ballet and here performed by QB’s Mia Heathcote and Joel Woellner. I’ve seen Stevenson’s production several times in Brisbane but hadn’t registered just how sensual the woman’s choreography is. Heathcote looked divine, luxuriously swaying her spine and curving her neck this way without losing a sense of classical style. Woellner is a strong, fine dancer who at this matinee wasn’t entirely on form. As always he partnered well.

SCYB artistic director Lucinda Dunn suggested in her program note that Together Live 2017 might be only the beginning of the partnership with the SYO. Certainly the name hints at future collaborations and they’d be most welcome.

SYCB is associated with Tanya Pearson Classical Coaching Academy and the acadamy’s general manager, Nicole Sharp, says she and Dunn had long discussed wanting SYCB to perform with an orchestra. Money, as always, was the issue.

The situation changed when a student’s grandfather dropped by Sharp’s office to have a chat. It was Brian Buggy, who has conducted the SYO Philharmonic since 2007. After much discussion with Buggy and SYO chief executive Yarmila Alfonzetti about music and repertoire, the deal was done.

The SYO Philharmonic – a full symphony orchestra with members ranging in age from 12 to 24 – gave a fearless reading of the Prelude of Act II of Wagner’s Lohengrin, which gives the whole orchestra a bracing workout in about three speedy minutes. The brass and winds were particularly effective – the brass terrific in the Sculthorpe too – but there were strong contributions from all sections.

The Great Gatsby, West Australian Ballet

His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, September 14.

Northern Ballet’s artistic director David Nixon is an old and highly successful hand at creating narrative ballets but he gave himself a tough assignment with this one. His 2013 dance translation of The Great Gatsby is entirely faithful to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s best novel while at the same time floating over what really lies at its heart.

Gatsby’s exterior world of frenetic parties and unattainable lovers is eminently stage-worthy and West Australian Ballet looks wonderful in Nixon’s evocation of jazz-age, Prohibition-flouting high society. The frocks are divine, the women glamorous, the men have never seemed sleeker and the 1920s dances are a delight.

Matthew Edwardson and Dancers of West Australian Ballet in The Great Gatsby. Photo by Sergey Pevnev

Matthew Edwardson (front) as Young Gatsby in The Great Gatsby. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

Far more difficult to convey are the fluttering nuances of character and shades of meaning that make the novel such an unsettling picture of a changing country with the post-war jitters.

How to express that Daisy’s voice is “full of money”, as Gatsby puts it? Or that Gatsby was once the impoverished nobody Jimmy Gatz? Or that Nick Carraway is the cousin of Gatsby’s lost love Daisy, and thus is being used by his now fabulously wealthy neighbour? (I am reminded of George Balanchine’s famous assertion that “there are no mothers-in-law in ballet”. Certain specifics of kinship are not easily conveyed wordlessly.)

Fitzgerald describes Gatsby’s fruitless pursuit of Daisy at several removes through Nick’s eyes as he looks back. In its concentration on the surface narrative the ballet loses those layers and Fitzgerald’s mood of evanescence with them, despite Nixon’s repeated flashbacks showing a young Gatsby wooing Daisy. The cartoonish depiction of Gatsby’s mob connections – men slinking about in black trench coats – doesn’t help.

The Great Gatsby nevertheless has much to enjoy, even if it’s advisable for those not steeped in the novel to take a solid look at the synopsis ahead of time.

A lively selection of 1920s-flavoured music by Richard Rodney Bennett, some taken from his film scores, accompanies lots of swiftly changing scenes. The use of a movement from his 1990 Percussion Concerto is particularly effective and Bennett’s history as a jazz pianist informs the score’s best moments. The West Australian Symphony Orchestra, with Myron Romanul at the helm, gave a zesty account of it on opening night.

Melissa Boniface and Dancers of West Australian Ballet in The Great Gatsby. Photo by Sergey Pevnev

Matthew Lehmann (rear) and Melissa Boniface (front) in The Great Gatsby. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

Above all there were terrific performances from all in the first cast, no mean feat when there are nine key characters.

Gakuro Matsui (the elegant, mysterious Gatsby), Chihiro Nomura (careless, feckless Daisy) and Oliver Edwardson (watchful Nick Carraway) were as effective as the limits of their characters allowed. Gatsby is the outsider who stands aloof at his own parties, is seen gazing wistfully across the water at the light on the end of Daisy’s jetty, or remembering his early days with Daisy. It makes him an elusive character, even when he finally gets Daisy in his arms for rapturous pas de deux in both acts. Which is as it should be from the Fitzgerald point of view, even if it makes the role a difficult one onstage.

Matthew Edwardson and Carina Roberts were fresh as the young Gatsby and Daisy while Brooke Widdison-Jacobs was superbly cast as Daisy’s golf-champion friend Jordan Baker, wielding a cool, amused demeanour and long sporty limbs.

The really juicy parts, however, are for Daisy’s unfaithful husband Tom, his lover Myrtle and Myrtle’s husband George. They get to be vividly steamy and sexy. Matthew Lehmann looked super sharp and gave Tom virile presence. He had looked out of sorts earlier in the year in Don Quixote but now seemed refreshed and renewed. Liam Green’s George was urgent with longing for his errant wife and Melissa Boniface was sensational as the passionate, doomed Myrtle. Now here was a character for a dancer to get her teeth into.

The Great Gatsby ends September 30.

A version of this review first appeared in The Australian on September 18.

Swan Lake/Loch na hEala

Teac Damsa, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, August 30.

Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake is unsparingly black in so many ways, starting with its indelible image of a near-naked, bleating man tethered to a block of concrete. The people in this midlands Irish community are damaged, the humour plentiful but grim and the prospects grimmer.

“Nature is stronger than will,” says the inappropriately named Holy Man (actor Mikel Murfi), describing the appalling event that led to the disappearance of four young women and their transformation into swans. Murfi, our narrator, will later also morph into a despotic county politician and the local law. There’s not much difference between them. They’re all called McLoughlin, petty tyrants each one.

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Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake/Loch naEala. Photo: Prudence Upton

The bare surroundings – some scaffolding, a few ladders – speak of the town’s poverty, not just in material things but in spirit. The ghastly birthday party (funny, though) sums things up. It’s thrown by Nancy for her son Jimmy so he might meet a local girl, shake off his depression and get married. Things don’t look promising.

In amongst the wreckage, though, there is great beauty and freedom. Keegan-Dolan’s depiction of abuse and debilitating grief doesn’t deny the harshness of life but he mitigates it with the consolation of optimism. The abiding memories of Loch na hEala are a love duet of exquisite tenderness and white feathers banishing the darkness as music plays and the ensemble dances joyously.

The story of a woman turned into a bird or sea creature is found in many mythologies, including Irish legend. Keegan-Dolan takes from that and is also strikingly faithful to the essentials of the familiar 19th-century ballet version while making them utterly contemporary.

His emotionally frozen anti-hero, Jimmy (Alexander Leonhartsberger), finds release when he meets swan-woman Fionnuala (Rachel Poirier) by the lake. His flinching tentativeness when he first sees Fionnuala is deeply touching and so right. Keegan-Dolan has a splendid eye for detail.

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Rachel Poirier and Alexander Leonhartsberger. Photo: Pridence Upton

Jimmy and Fionnuala can’t escape their fate but they are part of a much larger and longer history of endurance and resilience. Their sublime second pas de deux is an unforgettable paean to the power of love over malignity even as Keegan-Dolan doesn’t shy away from showing the pain that surrounds them.

Keegan-Dolan, who wrote the brilliant text as well as choreographed and directed, blends folk-inspired dance, spoken word and music into a seamless whole. The marvellous trio Slow Moving Clouds plays and sings Celtic and Nordic melodies live and the nine-member dance ensemble makes the heart sing. It’s a pity the season was so brief.

This review first appeared in The Australian on September 1.

New era at RNZB

The question had to be asked. Is Patricia Barker at Royal New Zealand Ballet for the long haul?

Her predecessor but one as artistic director, fellow American Ethan Stiefel, saw out his three-year contract but decided not to renew. Barker’s immediate predecessor, Francesco Ventriglia, announced his resignation last November only two years into his tenure (he stayed in the job until June). A different approach was clearly needed.

Patricia Barker, Artistic Director, The Royal New Zealand Ballet

Royal New Zealand Ballet artistic director Patricia Barker. Photo: RNZB/Stephen A’Court

“The Board asked me to sign on for five years,” Barker says. It’s a wise call in the circumstances and Barker looks to be just what the dance doctor ordered. Beneath her quiet, warm, calm demeanour there would seem to exist super-powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, or women.

Barker gave nearly three decades of service to Seattle-based Pacific Northwest Ballet, where she long reigned as an internationally renowned prima ballerina before retiring in 2007 in her mid-40s. A few years later she went to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to run a company that was “a week or two from closing its doors”. It had big, big problems but Barker took the job on because she didn’t want to see another company disappear, putting dancers on the street. “When things get hard I don’t give up,” she says. Seven years on, GRB is thriving.

Making deep commitments seems to sit easily with Barker. “I bring a sense of settlement. I’m settled, I’m consistent, I’m passionate about this industry, I care about the organisation I work for and the people that are here and I’m experienced in my position. The company hasn’t had somebody with my skill set in quite a while,” she said, sitting in the RNZB boardroom the morning after the company opened Romeo and Juliet. (Ventriglia stayed on to choreograph it.)

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Madeleine Graham, Patricia Barker, dramaturg Mario Mattia Giorgetti and Joseph Skelton after the opening of Francesco Ventriglia’s Romeo and Juliet. Photo: RNZB/Jeremy Brick

This doesn’t come across as anything remotely approaching self-promotion, by the way. Barker speaks carefully and plainly. It’s just the way things are.

RNZB was obviously keen for Barker to start more or less instantly after she’d accepted the Board’s invitation. She was announced as artistic director on June 7, within about a week a visa had been secured and less than two weeks later she had arrived. “I grabbed two suitcases and came. I was sitting in my chair on the 18th or 19th. It was a whirlwind,” she says.

On Barker’s second day she attended a full board meeting; on her third she hopped on a plane to Timaru, a city halfway between Christchurch and Dunedin on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island. That was to catch a performance of Tutus on Tour, a touring program to small centres designed to fulfil RNZB’s brief as the country’s national ballet company.

It was a full-on start for a woman whose life was frankly busy enough already. She is still GRB’s artistic director and thus holds down two jobs, but Barker is unfazed. The timing of seasons is different, there are things that can be done from a distance, she had already planned GRB’s 2017-2018 season and Ventriglia had pretty much locked down RNZB’s 2018 program, although Barker has had room to add a few touches of her own.

And Grand Rapids, one hastens to add, has already made some staff adjustments and its search for a new artistic director is well and truly on. Nevertheless, it’s a measure of how much RNZB needed Barker in New Zealand as soon as possible that it’s prepared to see her juggle responsibilities for both companies for some while.

Patricia Barker, Artistic Director, The Royal New Zealand Ballet

Patricia Barker in the studio at Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Stephen A’Court

Eight weeks in when we speak, Barker is still learning new things about how RNZB operates and “the Kiwi accent throws me a little bit”, but there’s no hesitation when it comes to what she intends for the company. At the repertoire level, given Barker’s Balanchine-rich background at PNB, can we expect to see more of that master’s works? “Yes, in one easy word. They are food for the dancers and delight for the audiences.” Barker knows Jîrí Kylián well, having been a co-artistic adviser with him at Slovak National Ballet, and describes him as someone audiences need to see and whose works dancers desire to dance.

“Works by Balanchine, Kylián, Forsythe – they will attract talented dancers to our shores,” Barker says. She’s also a strong supporter of female choreographers, a group very under-represented in classical dance. And proving the value of doing two jobs at once, she is backing the talents of a company dancer and choreographer, Loughlan Prior, by sending him to Grand Rapids to make a work for her contemporary dance program MOVEMEDIA: Diversity.

Barker is working on 2019 and beyond, as she must. That involves “looking for the big ideas, the big works” and then working out audience appeal, touring logistics, how productions can be built and the many other details that underpin a season.

First though, come the dancers. “One of the reasons why we all agreed for me to come as soon as possible was for me to get a feel for the dancers, for the talent in the room for the works that are being done next year and then building for ‘19, ‘20, ‘21,” Barker says. “I believe in using the talents you have in front of you, but definitely looking towards the future and talents that may turn up on our doorstep. At the moment dancers are making life decisions and we’re making decisions for this organisation. We want the brightest talents in the studio.”

Some dancers will choose to leave, she says – “it’s in dancers’ DNA to move around” – but others may well be encouraged by plans Barker has for a more stable in-house structure.

“There’s been a big change in artistic staff over the past six years and that’s something I’m committed to settling down. We will have a team and will have a permanent team. I feel very confident in the people for 2018. The goal is to have permanence for a length of time.”

Someone it wouldn’t be surprising to see in the RNZB studios is Barker’s husband, Michael Auer, also a former principal artist with PNB. Auer is currently creative director at the school associated with Grand Rapids Ballet but he and Barker don’t propose to have a long-distance relationship. She might have abandoned him (her word) to move to New Zealand as quickly as possible but he will be joining her in Wellington. “As long as we’re together we feel that’s home.”

Romeo and Juliet, RNZB

St James Theatre, Wellington, August 16.

Francesco Ventriglia was artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet when he proposed making a new Romeo and Juliet to replace Christopher Hampson’s highly regarded version, made in 2003 to mark RNZB’s 50th anniversary and revived for four more seasons. Ventriglia’s tenure didn’t quite work out as planned and in November last year, two years into the job, it was announced he would leave the post in June. He would however stay on as a guest choreographer to complete R&J.

Romeo and Juliet, by the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

Joseph Skelton and Madeleine Graham as Romeo and Juliet. Photo: RNZB/Stephen A’Court

Hampson’s version was set in the 1950s. Ventriglia returns the story to the 15th century and Italian aristocratic life, vividly evoking a society in which excitable young men with not enough to do are constantly on the prowl for mischief while young noblewomen must face the prospect of marrying Prince Wrong to shore up the family’s standing.

Renaissance Verona comes up a treat in British designer James Acheson’s sets and costumes. He was clearly the right man for the job, what with a mantelpiece laden with Oscars including for The Last Emperor and Dangerous Liaisons. This is a man who knows his way around opulence. The elder Capulets gleam in crimson, Juliet shimmers in floaty white and pastels and the inevitable harlots make whoopee in sexy swagged frocks that are a riot of saturated colours, set off by fabulous boots. Business must be excellent.

The only disappointment is that Acheson – one assumes he must take the blame – has apparently agreed to fall obediently in line with classical ballet’s inviolable harlot rule. It states that women in this profession must be identified, without fail, by a desperately unbecoming explosion of frizz on their heads (cf. Manon). Most tiresome.

Romeo and Juliet, by the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

Kirby Selchow, Katie Hurst-Saxon and Veronika Maritati. Photo: RNZB/Stephen A’Court

This irritation aside, Acheson’s design is a powerful character. There are great arches, a wide central staircase and tall columns that deftly redefine spaces. For the balcony scene Juliet at first appears, Rapunzel-like, in an opening carved out of a tall, otherwise faceless tower that speaks of a material world that has stood, and will stand, for generations to defend its inhabitants from envious outsiders (or perhaps a young man who might want to take liberties).

We don’t know why the Capulets and Montagues hate one another but it doesn’t matter. Their enmity is woven into the fabric of their lives, as is religion. It must be observed. In a brilliant touch, Juliet’s bedchamber is dominated by a huge painting of Madonna and Child under which Romeo and Juliet consummate their marriage, mute testimony to the role Friar Laurence plays in the tragedy and the inescapable influence of the Church.

The visual richness is a wonderful match for Prokofiev’s music, which conductor Hamish McKeich and Orchestra Wellington played to the hilt at the opening. They gave urgency and sweep to the big moments that give brass and percussion occasion to let rip and McKeich drew lush playing from the strings. While the sound was more persuasive at full bore than in the score’s more intimate sections (possibly a function of the St James acoustic), McKeich’s reading of this exceptionally familiar music gratifyingly offered new things to hear in it.

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Abigail Boyle as Lady Capulet. Photo: RNZB/Stephen A’Court

Ventriglia responds to the music with choreography that is always fluent and apposite but not greatly revelatory or distinctive. He does, however, give the staging plenty of piquant flavour, a result, no doubt, of his collaboration with dramaturg Mario Mattia Giorgetti. Their work pays handsome dividends. There is no alteration to the broad sweep of the narrative – everything is in its expected place – but close attention is paid to the spaces in between. You see this at the Capulet’s masked ball when Tybalt warns Juliet off Romeo with the smallest shake of his head, a moment that adds texture to their relationship. Don’t do this, he’s telling her. Don’t go there. It’s the tinest thing yet adds to our understanding of the relationship between the cousins. There are a myriad other examples that give characters nuance and actions a reason for being. Of course Tybalt, who sees what’s going on, would let Juliet know he knows.

Most striking is the depiction of Lady Capulet and her relationship with Tybalt. At the masked ball their desire is barely suppressed and when Romeo kills Tybalt, Lady Capulet’s grief and rage explode like napalm. She rips off the mask of propriety and doesn’t care who sees the naked passion beneath. Just in case anyone was under the misapprehension she was mourning a favourite nephew, Lady Capulet marks her territory with a voracious kiss almost as shocking as the one Oscar Wilde’s Salome gives the head of John the Baptist. Abigail Boyle’s ice-and-fire Lady Capulet was a sensation, well matched by Paul Mathews’s deeply attractive Tybalt.

Not surprisingly, the younger lovers came to look a little pallid in the shadow of such drama, or at least did on opening night. Joseph Skelton and Madeleine Graham acted engagingly and danced their series of complicated pas de deux with much skill. Skelton is handsome and an able partner, Graham is adorable and both were very sweet, but neither clawed their way to the peak of great tragedy nor plumbed the depths of exhilaration and desperation.

Romeo and Juliet, by the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

Joseph Skelton and Madeleine Graham. Photo: RNZB/Stephen A’Court

Massimo Margaria was a wild Mercutio, Filippo Valmorbida enchanting as Benvolio (I think he’d be a rather good Romeo) and Laura Saxon Jones all elbows and daffy kindness as the Nurse. Mayu Tanigaito stood out in the quartet of Juliet’s friends and dances Juliet at some performances, partnered by Kohei Iwamoto, who managed to make something of the fairly thankless role of Paris on opening night. Jacob Chown was tremendously good in the tricky part of Lord Capulet, who has to keep up appearances as a man of substance in the face of his wife’s barely veiled contempt.

Romeo and Juliet ends in Wellington on Sunday August 20 then tours to seven cities around the country, ending on September 24.